ALL ON BOARD
Last January, Duke found itself included in the season’s final Associated Press football poll for the first time since 1961.
With games less than two weeks away, this season’s first poll will be released today at 2 p.m. and even if the Blue Devils aren’t in the top 25, they’ll certainly be among the teams receiving votes.
Such things are becoming commonplace now at Duke, where the Blue Devils set a school record with 10 wins last season while finishing No. 23 in the AP poll.
On Saturday, another sign of the changing football scene at a school known far better nationally for basketball was on display. An crowd estimated at 3,000 streamed through Duke’s Pascal Field House indoor practice facility for the annual “Meet the Blue Devils” autograph session.
A year ago, when Duke was coming off its first bowl appearance in 20 years, Duke officials estimated the Meet the Blue Devils crowd at 1,700.
“Every once in a while I would stand up to take a photo with someone and it looked like a mass of people in here,” Cutcliffe said of Saturday’s even larger crowd. “I had more people comment to me that they had to wait longer to get in than they ever have. Bad and good problem. Maybe next time I need to work a swing deal with Gatorade to have some small Gatorades for folks to drink.”
The line in front of Cutcliffe’s table was so long some fans had to be turned away as the event ended.
“It breaks my heart to not take care of everybody that’s here,” Cutcliffe said.
But last year’s national coach of the year and the ACC coach of the year the last two seasons had work to do as he seeks to maintain the winning football program he’s built. The Blue Devils had a practice Saturday morning and there was footage of that for him to assess. The Duke coaching staff was also spending time with Tré Nixon, a 6-1 wide receiver from Melbourne, Florida, who was in town on an unofficial visit.
Nixon, a junior this season, already has offers from Florida, Miami and Penn State, among others.
Exactly two weeks from Saturday, Duke opens the season against Elon (Aug. 30, 6 p.m.) at Wallace Wade Stadium.
The coaching staff still has a few personnel decisions to firm up. The starting right tackle job is a battle between Tanner Stone and Casey Blaser.
At left guard, Lucas Patrick is expected to start but he’s missed both preseason scrimmages with concussion symptoms following a blow to the head.
At linebacker, David Helton is the new starting middle linebacker after all-ACC player Kelby Brown was lost for the season last Monday to a torn ACL in his left knee. Redshirt senior C.J. France is in line to start at weak-side linebacker with junior Deion Williams, redshirt freshman Chris Holmes and true freshman Zavier Carmichael and Tinashe Bere also pushing for playing time.
On that front, Brown plans on playing a key role even though he had season-ending knee surgery on Wednesday. The redshirt senior from Charlotte was on hand Saturday with his teammates signing copies of the team’s schedule poster which features his image.
“Nothing changes,” Brown said. “One of the signs of a great team is you have depth. If you team is driven by one or two players you are probably not that good. So I expect the defense to replace me. Obviously I’m going to have a different role. I’m still going to be a leader.”
That’s another sign of the changing football landscape at Duke, which went from 1994 until last season between winning seasons. Top 25 rankings, increased fan interest and lofty expectations remain alive, even if an all-ACC player like Brown is on crutches with the season about to start.